Is Lunch Meat Bad for You? Here’s the Truth

Can a turkey club be part of a healthy diet? Will that pastrami sandwich cause cancer?

(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.)

In October of 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) slapped processed meats — including cold cuts like bologna and pastrami — with a Group 1 “carcinogenic to humans” label, meaning they cause cancer. Researchers considered more than 800 cancer studies across the world to reach their conclusions, which also linked excessive red meat consumption to higher incidences of the disease.

The health warnings about deli meat should be heeded; too much of a good thing can really hurt you

Even more startling: They found that eating a surprisingly small amount of processed meat could raise your cancer risk. In terms of hard numbers, WHO discovered that 50 grams eaten daily — or, about 1.7 ounces of salami — increases your chance of getting colorectal cancer by 18 percent. One hundred grams would increase the risk by 36 percent, and so forth. The American Cancer Society warns that excessive consumption might tie in to other cancers, as well.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Add in the high sodium and fat content of lots of lunch meats, and it makes you want to swear off ham sandwiches for the rest of your life.

But Wait!

Buried in those depressing findings are two pieces of valuable, qualifying information:

First, as pointed out by both The Huffington Post and The Atlantic, eating two slices of daily deli meat doesn’t knock your chance of getting colorectal cancer to 18 percent. It bumps your risk by 18 percent, from about 4.5 to 5.3 percent over the course of a lifetime. While you might want to lay off the liverwurst, something like smoking is far, far more carcinogenic, comparatively.

Second, certain cold cuts like turkey aren’t a total no-no, and can even be part of a healthy diet. “Rather than deprive yourself altogether, exercise moderation with your lunch meats, and be smart about incorporating other healthy foods and habits into your daily routines,” advises Jessica Iannotta, a registered dietician and COO of Savor Health. By understanding the issues and making careful, well-considered choices (chicken breast rather than a pile of bologna), you can still delight in turkey subs, and even the occasional BLT.

Why it Matters What You Order

When it comes to deli meats, there are two chief health concerns: nitrates/nitrites and nutritional value — specifically, sodium and saturated fat content.

Synthetic nitrates and nitrites inhibit rotting, keeping cold cuts fresh and flavorful; they’re also the chief suspects in the cancer debacle. “Nitrates are used to preserve the meat,” says Lauri Wright, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “but they have been shown to increase risk for certain cancers such as colorectal cancer, heart disease and diabetes.” While it’s a strong link and not a proven direct cause, limiting your nitrate and nitrite intake is definitely advisable.

Deli meats are also commonly full of sodium, which raises blood pressure, stressing your heart, kidneys and other VIPs (Very Important Parts). “Processed meats are created by curing, salting, smoking or preserving with additives, and thus they are notoriously high in sodium content,” says Iannotta. Federal government guidelines suggests limiting your daily sodium intake to 2300 mg at most, but aiming for 1500 mg and under — the equivalent of five ounces of pastrami.

And of course, there’s the saturated fat. “Most deli meats are high in fat, as well,” says Wright. “Almost 50 percent of calories per serving are fat and many are saturated fats, which are not heart healthy.” Mortadella and corned beef are two of the worst perpetrators, though you might want to skip the bacon on your next club sandwich, too.

What to Eat Instead

When all these health hazards are considered together, you understand why WHO warned people off of processed meats. Still, you can include cold cuts as part of your diet by keeping the following guidelines in mind:

Scale back your sandwich schedule. “Enjoy cold cuts on occasion, at most once or twice a week,” says Iannotta. And if you must have that daily hero, “Get creative by swapping cold cuts and processed meats for fresh meat like baked or grilled turkey or chicken, or canned fish like sardines, tuna or salmon.”

Steer clear of the really unhealthy meats altogether. Keep in mind that ultra-processed cold cuts like bologna, liverwurst, and pastrami generally contain more nitrates and nitrites, sodium and fat than leaner whole meats like chicken and turkey. Also, if it comes in a plastic container and hangs from a hook, odds are it’s not a great lunch choice. “Avoid the pre-packed lunch meats and hot dogs,” advises Wright. Check out the nutrition label to be sure.

Pick your sandwich fillings wisely. “Choose low-sodium versions of deli meats, pile on the vegetables (think avocado, tomato, lettuce, cucumber, spinach, peppers), and nix the cheese,” says Iannotta. “Also, opt for leaner meats like turkey, chicken or roast beef.” While leaner cuts are processed to some extent, they’re generally not as unhealthy as a hunk of salami. Have the meats sliced right at the deli counter or opt for high-quality packaged brands like Applegate Farms, frequently heralded as the gold standard.

Cooking meat at home and eating it all through the week is another smart option, since you control exactly what goes into your food. “If you roast a chicken or roast beef for dinner, the leftovers can be sliced into a sandwich the next day,” suggests Sally Eisenberg, a Certified Health Coach and founder of Nourish Ur Life. “Serve with lettuce and tomato and a side salad or sliced veggies and you’re already ahead of the game.”

Ultimately, the health warnings about deli meat should be heeded; too much of a good thing can really hurt you. But armed with the right information, you can limit the damage to a few drops of mustard on your tablecloth.

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